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A press secretary who tells the truth. An independent justice department that respects the rule of law. A president who doesn’t tweet conspiracy theories in the wee hours of the morning. After four dispiriting years and one near-death experience for American democracy, it would be comforting to conclude that nature is healing. Our political guardrails held. The Trump Era was nothing more than a temporary blip.
But such complacency would be a terrible mistake. What we’re seeing at the dawn of the Biden presidency is not the reestablishment of norms, but the establishment of double standards.
Yes, it’s commendable that the incoming Democratic administration pledges to behave responsibly, but it’s far from guaranteed that future Republican administrations will do the same. In fact, as things currently stand, it’s practically guaranteed that they won’t.
Just look at a brief history of the White House ethics pledge. In 2000, when George W Bush took office, Republicans went all in on “The K Street Project,” formally integrating lobbyists into conservative policymaking and vice versa. Industries who donated to Republican candidates and hired Republican staff were given access to party leaders. Those that did not were not.
The Bush Administration’s pay-to-play approach to government – and the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal which ensued – eroded public trust in government. In response, President Obama put in place the strictest ethics pledge in history. He banned lobbyists from serving in his administration, banned members of his administration from becoming lobbyists, and generally tried to block the revolving door between public service and influence peddling.
This was clearly the right thing to do. Yet President Obama rarely got credit for doing the right thing. Instead, the pledge’s ambition was soon taken for granted by the Washington press corps, while its imperfections – the waivers granted to lobbyists deemed too essential to exclude from the administration – became news. Donald Trump was able to run for office on a promise to drain the swamp. After winning, he watered down the requirements he inherited. On his final day in office, he shredded his own ethics pledge, freeing former members of the Trump administration to lobby however and whomever they pleased.
In between, President Trump – who served half as long as President Obama – hired more than four times as many lobbyists to serve in his administration. Yet Trump’s low standards didn’t remain newsworthy. Like Obama’s high standards, they were soon taken for granted by the press.
Now the tables have turned once again. The Biden Administration has unveiled the strictest ethics pledge in history, building on President Obama’s lobbying bans by covering not just registered lobbying but also the so-called “shadow lobbying” that long served as an ethics loophole. It’s another big step forward. But it’s also a reminder that Democrats and Republicans are on two entirely different trajectories. If past is prologue, Biden will face more criticism if he fails to perfectly implement his high standards than Trump faced for having practically no standards at all. And rather than feel any political or moral obligation to follow Biden’s example, the next Republican administration will pick up right where the last president of their party left off.
In other words, Democrats and Republicans are playing by different set of rules. And not just when it comes to ethics pledges and lobbying bans. We now know that many of the principles we once imagined were pillars of our democratic society – a respect for truth; a belief in the importance of a free press; the rejection of nepotism; a commitment to honor the results of elections not just in victory but in defeat – are propped up almost entirely by the good faith of politicians. And as we learned over the last four years, in American politics, bad faith is hardly in short supply.
That’s why it’s not enough to usher in an administration that models good behavior. We must ensure that we create high standards that apply to everyone.
That starts with changing political incentives that currently punish leaders who try to act responsibly and reward those who don’t. Some members of the press will surely be tempted to return to their own version of normalcy – one where Obama’s tan suit is a scandal, Joe Biden’s Peloton is a political liability, and it’s generally assumed that Republicans will behave like arsonists while Democrats behave like adults. Yes, the press should hold the Biden Administration accountable. But it would do the American public a disservice to pretend the last four years didn’t happen, or to take it for granted that most Republican politicians will behave like arsonists and most Democratic politicians will try to behave like adults.
Nor is it just the press – and other, similarly nonpartisan institutions – who should do more to prevent the emergence of double standards. Democrats currently control both houses of Congress. They should use that control to codify norms into laws. In past Congresses, for example, Senator Elizabeth Warren has put forward a bill that contains and expands on the provisions in the Obama and Biden ethics pledges. Similar bills could make it harder to oppose the certification of a fair and free election, use the justice department as a political weapon, or rely on corrupt dark money to finance campaigns. Most important, legislation can accomplish what relying on politicians’ good faith cannot – constraining the behavior not only of Democrats, but of Republicans as well.
If we don’t take this opportunity to restore the norms that allow our political system to function, we may not get another chance. Perhaps the Republican Party, emboldened by Trumpism and empowered by gerrymandering and voter suppression, will develop a more strategic and successful model of authoritarianism. Or perhaps a new generation of Democrats, convinced that our institutions won’t act to protect their own bedrock principles, will decide that abandoning those principles is the only way to ensure Trumpism doesn’t reemerge.
If such a race to the bottom comes to define American politics, the entire country will lose. But that’s ultimately why the beginning of the Biden Era is a moment of a relief. We haven’t turned the page on an awful chapter of American history. But finally, together, we can. For the first time in four years, America’s most powerful institutions are run almost entirely by people who care about our democracy and want to see it survive. They must make the most of this moment, not just to clear the low bar set by the previous administration, but to raise the bar for future ones before it’s too late.
David Litt is a former Obama speechwriter and the author of Thanks, Obama and Democracy in One Book Or Less